Emerging From the Chrysalis: Art After the Disintegration

IN MY RECENT ARTICLE Hitting the Nail on the Head (@ The Hammer): What Makes it Art?, I launched the question: what makes something a work of Art? After navigating a labyrinth of artistic conundrums through the examination of four installations from the Hammer Museum’s 2016 biennial showcase Made in L.A.: a, the, though, only, I subsequently ended with a question: “Now that the mechanics of art and art-making have been exposed, the innards unraveled string by string to reveal the workings of the machine, what are we going to do with all these parts?” Though I cannot give a concrete or step-by-step answer to that question (nor want to), I can describe the conditions which circumnambulate this challenge.

I propose the term Integrationism to describe the next era of Art. Integrationism is the progressive result of and the inevitable response to the unraveling of culture through Postmodernism. It appears as the sun emerging from the endless ocean horizon of the night of Postmodernism. It’s a call for creative action in this era of dire straits aesthetics and artistic parroting. It is the pinprick light at the end of the post-2012 tunnel, the way out of this ironically myopic past-centrism and into future territory. This is not an unknown predicament; a similar rite of passage occurred from the late 1960s to the early  1970s in which painting passed through what Roberta Smith in 2006 called “the eye of the Minimal-Conceptual needle”. Except this time the situation is not “a near-death experience” but rather a birth experience in which we are currently traveling through the birth canal, on our way to being born into new awareness.

Birth, though very few can actually remember the experience, is not necessarily easy or enjoyable. It is however an inevitable event if the foetus is to become a functioning organism in the physical world. It involves detachment from past reality (mother and womb) and a reorientation of self (physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually) towards constituting a unique identity capable of independent functioning. However, the human foetus does not pass directly from the umbilically-tied dependent to walking/talking human being. There is the long, contingency period of assisted growth and development post-birth. The journey of gaining autonomy has been explored and described in terms of science, religion, philosophy, literature and art (specifically worth mentioning is Lacan’s Mirror Stage, which directly and indirectly relates to all of those).  It is an inevitable process; yet even when a person reaches ‘maturity’ and ‘adulthood’, therein is laid out the fabric of reality of interdependence, the universal principle upon which all life is founded by and upon. The paradox of life is a single unified organism and also only separate individual organisms.

So we cannot escape birth, we cannot escape interdependencee, and we cannot escape history–and don’t need to. And since we don’t need to escape it, we also don’t need to hang on to it–its there. Postmodernism, after being primarily a disintegrating, centrifugal force, has generated an attachment to the past culminating as a vintage-obsessed culture and a retrospective-heavy Art world. This focus on the past has opened space necessary to coalesce an understanding of the accomplishments of the 20th century. It is taking everything apart to see the mechanics of the machine. The Postmodern period has been a dissecting–a surgical operation a la Benjamin–of the body of Modernism, an operation resulting in some type of ‘Body without Organs’ (Deleuze/Guatarri). Structural, logical organization disintegrated into undifferentiation and deterritorialization of the body, movement (change) being lines of flight away from the center. This movement up and away painted a birds-eye view of the outer workings of the machine of culture itself. The outer rim of awareness–context–ironically became the focal point of understanding for the Postmodern period, ultimately perching Art on the periphery of awareness: being made up of context, being about context, being defined by context, and ultimately, being flattened out by its own nothingness it determined itself to be about. As I stated in Hitting the Nail on the Head, “Art becomes the act of pointing at the air surrounding an empty yet intricately woven shell”. It has made the 20th century into ruins by “burning down the house” (as the Talking Heads have sung)–this however being an inevitable part of the creative cycle of birth and death. To use the ancient and well-worn image of the phoenix, I describe the picture in view to be that of rebirth from the ashes.

Integrationism is the reemergence of Art from the ashes of its last completed lifecycle. It is what comes after the dissection-of-parts-turned-undifferentiated-soup within the chrysalis of its own design. The chrysalis is the context of history which we have built around ourselves and are dependent upon to continue our evolutionary journey. We cannot escape from the limitations of this history until we completely disintegrate all its constituent parts and integrate them alchemically into functioning generative structures–new organisms. This necessitates action–an outpouring–over consumption (intake). The caterpillar, a rudimentary creature with formidable mandibles yet only primitive light sensors to see, is the ultimate consumer: it, completely sexless, exists only in continual blind consumption of its host plant until it has enough bodily mass to evolve into a form with more awareness and generative capabilities: a butterfly, complete with wings for traveling long distances, eyes for seeing the uniqueness of the world, tongue for tasting the sweet nectar of flowers, and binary gender (difference and specialization) to allow for the combination of opposites to pass along acquired knowledge (DNA). The caterpillar is the perfect positive mascot for Capitalism–the economy of consumerism–complete with the apocalyptic possibility of fatal decimation of its host plant: the destruction of its only resource, the environment which is depends upon, its umwelt. In light of the darkness of the global ecological instability insidious in 2016, the caterpillar’s predicament appears all too relevant. However prevalent the state of the natural world is, the current Art environment at large has its own issues. Art, by way of it being (I argue) the most evolved and advanced human activity, is ahead of other facets of human development (including our relationship with the natural world); it is at the forefront of evolution–in fact, leading the way. I position that the ‘Art Caterpillar’ reached critical mass via Modernism, Postmodernism beginning the weaving of the chrysalis and ending with the caterpillar’s unraveling within it. The prison of Postmodernism is the chrysalis-womb spun by the globally expanded and capitalized caterpillar to reconstitute our disembodied collective DNA,  these conditions eventually giving birth to a newly-integrated organism equipped with greater knowledge and higher self-awareness.

The Hanged Man / 2011 / oil on canvas; branch, fishing line, hair, moss, chrysalis / 40″ x 30″ x 6″. My depiction of the caterpillar’s process of ‘hanging himself’ into a chrysalis (a nod to The Hanged Man of the Tarot) and subsequent transformation into butterfly.

We have just insidiously begun the process of rebirth out of the ashes which will manifest the butterfly-phoenix to be. We are nearing the end of the birth canal, but we do not yet know what the baby will look like. Though the progression is fated, the actions and imaginations of individuals and their collaborations with all else directs the outcome of the organism-t0-be.

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Lyrics from end of the track “The Coppice Meat” on Moons Milk (in four Phases) (2001) by the industrial/experimental music pioneer Coil, featuring words from a poem by the late Angus Maclise (in quotes), sheds some light on this shift from disintegration to integration:

And it was all fire, as the first drops of rain fell
And the scents, sliding down the air of the million and one desires of the unnamed god
Penetrated us, who are empty of all wisdom at last
The gate of entry was passed
And night fell over the dissonant ranges
Here, where it all began, as the ground trembles
The wraiths of what was un-god, anything before
Bestows itself prostrate before us, prepared for annihilation
Engraved on the ground where we walk is this warning
“Everything is now destroyed
Do not seek to be anything other than this
You will be divested of every garment until none remain
What is born must become whole by annihilation
By the gates of the first time
By the glittering flight of arrows into all twilights of knowing
By the din of the waning light”
What was spoken, what was heard, what was seen
Beyond the shift

Or perhaps, in a lighter tone of  voice, the theme song for this rite of passage could be CSNY’s “Long Time Gone” (1969), the ending lyrics being:

But you know
The darkest hour
Is always, always just before the dawn

And it appears to be a long
Appears to be a long
Appears to be a long time
Such a long, long, long, long time before the dawn

(That was 47 years ago–has it been a long time yet?)